Friday, August 31, 2012

Waiting On Us

                So, ever since that failed attempt to predict the end of the world awhile ago, I’ve been finding myself in conversations with people about Christ’s return and mulling over the whole issue.
                To start, I find people’s interest in end-time prophecy interesting in its own right. Everyone around me seems very concerned about how many of the prophecies have been fulfilled and is talking about why Christ is going to return soon or can’t return soon; about how we can’t know the day or the hour, or maybe why we might be able to know at least the year, and if so, which year, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And, of course, they are all supremely confident that these, these, are the last days. Every war, famine, hurricane, and liberal gain is another argument for Christ’s imminent return. Did you know that every single generation since the ascension of Christ has been equally and absolutely convinced that they were the final generation before Christ’s return? Makes me wonder how much stock to put in our current generation’s confidence.
                In the parables that Jesus told about the end times, the emphasis is almost never on the date of Christ’s return. Look at Luke 12:35-48. Jesus’ concern is not the precise timing of the master’s return, but on what the servants are doing while he’s gone. The master may come back at any time, day or night. Those servants who sit back, thinking that the master won’t be back soon will be punished when the master comes back unexpectedly. What I gather from this parable is that if I have to change how I live my life because I think that Christ is coming back tomorrow, then maybe I’m not living the right way in the first place. And that brings me to my next point.
                What if God doesn’t have a set date at all?
                What if God hasn’t set down a specific day, hour, month or year to return? What if He’s waiting for us? What if He’s waiting for to ask Him to return, to want Him to come back? What if He’s waiting on us to show Him, with our lives, that we actually want Heaven more than another day on earth?
                We are told to pray for Christ’s return; what if those prayers actually have weight? What if God is watching His people, waiting for us to decide that we want Him, and His kingdom, and His will, more than we want the world; more than we want job promotions, football games and season premieres? If that were the case, then what is His church showing Him now? What is your life telling Him right now? What is my life telling Him?
                Scary thought.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Rot: Part IV

You’re spelunking with some friends. You’ve been underground for some time and are having a lot of fun. You’ve seen some really beautiful rock formations; you’ve had to squeeze through some pretty tight passageways, followed an underground stream, and walked through giant calcified ballrooms. You all decide that it’s about time to head back up to the surface when you feel the ground shake around you and the cave ceiling collapses behind you, cutting off your only known path back up. What do you do?
So this is where we stand:
1. Humans all carry a rot within them that will always result in an oppressing class and an oppressed people.
2. Humans are finite and ignorant which makes mistakes in judgment, theory, and execution unavoidable and inevitable.
3. Evil perpetuates itself. This means that the negative and destructive effects of our mistakes are magnified to overtake all society.
4. Humans are addicted to the idea of more, meaning that the negative consequences of oppression and mistakes will grow more and more lethal as our own power and population grows.
5. If these factors are left unchecked, then the only possible endgame is our own destruction.
So, what do we do about this? I see only two solutions. First is the strategy of Ras Al Ghul in Batman, and of the robots in I Robot. The idea is that our human nature and our technical progress come together to assure our destruction. We can’t change human nature, so we try to stop our progress. This might be somewhat akin to clipping the wings of a bird to keep it from flying.
There are two problems with this tactic. First is that it is insanely unethical. It’s using evil to hobble evil. Since evil is self-perpetuative, injecting more evil into the equation only brings society closer to dystopia. In Batman Begins, Al Ghul claimed that his league had brought about the destruction of Rome. If their idea, however, was to limit evil, then they failed miserably. How many atrocities were committed by the strong against the weak during the Middle Ages in the absence of the political authority of Rome. Yes, the evil of Rome was severely limited, but the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, was also broken. Using evil to hobble evil only creates more evil.
Second, this tactic simply doesn’t work in the long haul. Throughout human history there have been events from time to time that would wipe out large segments of society, crippling us for decades or even centuries. These kinds of events are represented by wars, such as the fall of Rome; diseases, such as the Black Plague; natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami of 2004; and atrocities, such as the Holocaust or slavery in the South. Through all of these events, however, humanity has continued to garner power and progress technologically. Some of these events can actually be credited with helping human civilization to advance. The Black Plague is often credited with helping to create a Middle Class in Europe, which was necessary for the various Revolutions of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Without the Plague, the Middle Ages may have lasted even longer than they did. We simply don’t have any ethically acceptable or strategically successful way of stopping our progress.
The second option is to concentrate on the other half of that equation. If our nature and our progress combine to form this problem; and we can’t stop our progress; then what about changing our nature? But our problems are ignorance and finitude. How can the ignorant and limited grant limitlessness and omniscience? The blind cannot lead the blind, and the finite cannot solve finitude. If our nature is to be changed, it must be changed by something omniscient and infinite.
There is only one other option. We do not have the answer; we must look beyond and outside of ourselves. If there is no infinite personae in the universe, then our civilization and species are doomed; if, however, there is something that transcends us, that has the power and wisdom to re-program us, then there may be hope.
This argument is not a proof of God, but it is a reality check. The assumption of God and the assumption of atheism are, as far as I can tell, equally logically valid; however, each assumption carries certain necessary implications with it. If there is no God, then we are on our own, and we will not be able to overcome our ignorance, finitude, and societal entropy. If there is a God, then there may be hope for Utopia.
You and your friends look around. To one side, the cave entrance is completely collapsed; strewn with boulders as big as cars. To the other, the tiny underground stream you were following trails off down the cave shaft. Your radios are dead, there is no way to alert anyone to your situation, and no one top side knows that you’re down here. One of your buddies says that he thinks he remembers this cave having another entrance but he can’t be sure. Another guy starts frantically trying to pry the boulders out from the cave entrance. Another just sits down and starts crying. You realize that your group must choose. To stay where you are would mean certain death. To try to clear the passageway would not only be an exercise in futility, but may actually cause further collapse. To follow the stream and see where it goes is a gamble at best; but . . . If two options offer only death and hopelessness, and the third offers uncertain hope? Choose hope.
In Batman, toward the end of the movie, I began to realize that Batman was fighting a futile battle because neither he nor the police would be capable of transforming Gotham the way that would fully heal the city. Even if he wins this battle, there will be others, the evil of Gotham will always resurface until the people of Gotham can be transformed, both as individuals and as a society. Batman can’t do that. Only the One who made us is capable of re-making us.
Some hear the word God and understand only authority, oppression, and requirements. What God truly represents is hope. God extends to us the hope that we might, through His grace, be able to rise above our own shortcomings to become the person, and people, we were created to be. He offers hope that we might rise beyond our finitude and ignorance in the grace of His infinity. He offers hope, however uncertain, that utopia can exist. I choose hope.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Rot: Part III

So far in our investigation of the rot, I have asserted that it is a part of all of us, that it is magnified by our ignorance and finitude and that it consists, in part, of humanity’s compulsion to want more than what they have. Today, I’d like to wrap up my thoughts on the rot by talking about the nature of evil, the nature of utopia and dystopia, and how humanity’s addiction to progress plays in to the discussion.
Here’s what I’ve noticed about the “topias.” Utopia, what I think of as the fully consummated Kingdom of God, or shalom, revolves around its faithfulness to God’s design for humanity and creation.  In speaking of shalom, we said that the idea of peace revolves around the idea of completion. The thing about completion is that it must be complete. If you have a ceramic glass with a crack in the side, it is defined as broken. It doesn’t matter that 99% of the cup is fine, that one single crack is enough to make the cup unusable. That’s the way utopia works too. Perfect shalom, as it existed in the Garden of Eden and as it will exist in Heaven, only exists when all of humanity is correctly related to God and to one another. That means that if even one relationship between any two persons in the entire world is distorted or dysfunctional, then shalom as a whole is lost. It’s like a cup with a crack. One reason for this is in the nature of evil, but mostly it’s wrapped up in the definition of shalom.
Incompletion is not the opposite of completion, just as neither 12%, nor 55%, nor 83% are the opposite of 100%. The opposite of 100% is 0%, and the opposite of completion is nothingness. Everything between 0% and 100% is just incomplete and broken. A car that has been in an accident and no longer runs is broken, and no matter how much work has been done to it, it can’t be considered fixed until it’s 100% fixed and drivable again. Dystopia is not the opposite of Utopia, nothingness is. Dystopia is not nothingness, it is something. Hell exists; Big Brother is describable; brokenness is something to be experienced. Dystopia is a percentage of Utopia, it is the brokenness that exists between 0% and 100%. Therefore, dystopia is as hard to heal as utopia is easy to break because dystopia can absorb the goodness of 1000 men and still be just as broken. A cup with a single crack is unusable, and society with a single destructive personality is broken.
Now part of why it only takes a single act of evil, or even just a single mistake, to break utopia is because of the perpetuative nature of evil. Evil perpetuates itself like a disease or cancer. Any action which results in suffering has the potential, through that suffering, to engender bitterness, indignation, or anger that can then result in further evil. Said differently: are you more prone to make mistakes and act irresponsibly when you are content or when you are frustrated? Are you more prone to act out and be rude to someone when you are in a good mood or in a bad mood? Are you more prone to yell at other drivers, speed, or tail another car when you are happy about how everyone else is driving or when “that idiot just cut me off!”
An example: I just had a little girl. Of course, my daughter does not intend to cause any problems for anyone, but her crying for hours on end can cause fatigue and frustration for my wife and I. In the mental states that result, it becomes much easier for us to pass our frustration on to each other, to our friends, and to those around us. When I’m exhausted and frustrated with her crying, I become more prone to throw my hands up and just let her cry while I’m in a book store, which could then cause frustration for the other customers, who may then continue to pass that frustration along to still others, like the cashier, or their own children. Or again, look the proven link between men who were molested as children and then go on to become child molesters themselves. Evil perpetuates itself.
Evil is like a stone thrown into a placid lake, except that where the ripples caused by a physical stone die down and eventually fade, ripples of evil generally keep rolling and grow stronger as they interact with one another. If utopia is that placid lake, and one evil person throws one stone into that lake, then what happens as the ripples spread out, bounce off the edges of the lake and roll back to collide with one another? Soon, that placid lake will become a sea of storming chaos. Evil perpetuates itself.
All of this would be tolerable except for one crucial aspect of humanity’s character. We are addicted to progress. Some have said that humans are by nature greedy, others that we are simply curious. The point is that we are very rarely satisfied or content with what we have. Businesses must get bigger and make ever more profit. Science must progress. Explorers must see more and more of the world, the ocean, the universe. We want to have more, to know more, to see more, to discover more, to do more, to make more. But this addiction to the idea of more can have powerful consequences.
In terms of the military, this shows up in the arms race. No nation can tolerate an enemy with even comparable military power. During the Cold War this resulted in an arms race for nuclear weapons. But this was just one short leg of a race as old as civilization. Ever since the first guy tied a rock to a stick, his enemy had to figure out a way to sharpen the rock. Once horsemen started wearing armor, archers made the longbow, and then the musket, and then the rifle, then the Gatling gun, and then the machine gun. This necessitated trenches, and then chemical warfare, and then tanks. As long as there are nations, this arms race will continue to push the limits of lethality and power.
As we grow ever more powerful as a race, though, the consequences of our inevitable mistakes become bigger. Starting a war in 6000 B.C. would cost the lives of dozens of men. In 2000 B.C. that same war might cost the lives of tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. Starting a war in the 1945 cost the lives of millions and tens of millions of people. Starting a war today could affect billions. The more people there are, the more progress we make, the more power we have, the worse the consequences of our mistakes become. Eventually we will become powerful enough to easily destroy ourselves; we may be there already. And in a world of finitude and ignorance, when annihilation is just one poor decision away, someone will make the decision that will destroy us all. There is only one endgame naturalistically possible.
Next week I present the antidote.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Rot: Part II

This post is part of a series that started last week 8/3/2012
Picture this:
You’re driving along a local interstate singing along with the radio and drumming on the steering wheel. Out of nowhere a red sports car cuts dangerously close in front of you while applying its brakes in a reckless attempt to make the exit ramp you yourself were about to pass. You stomp on your own brakes and find yourself swerving a little bit, heart racing, before you regain control of your car.
“(Insert expletive of choice here) !!! What’s that idiot think he’s doing!?! Does he want to get us all killed with a stupid stunt like that? Why didn’t he get over a ½ mile ago?” you fume angrily. But what is the underlying cause of your anger? Isn’t it that this idiot did something reckless that he obviously should not have done; something that put other people in danger? Isn’t it that he didn’t act the way any thinking person should act? How do you know, however, that the way you think he should have acted, really is the way he should have acted? You didn’t know that he just realized that his passenger, his wife, is having a severe stroke, and that the exit he got off on happened to be the exit for a hospital located just off the highway.
The rot that sits festering in the heart of humanity is complex. I don’t think it can be summed up in a single word like pride, lust, or gluttony. To start discussing it, however, I would start with an aspect of humanity that magnifies its effects: no one ever knows that they’re wrong.
Have you ever thought about that? It’s true; no one ever knows that they’re wrong. If Alan holds opinion A, he does so because he believes that he is right in holding opinion A. The process of changing his opinion begins with being convinced of the truth of a different opinion, opinion B. It is only in light of opinion B that Alan realizes that opinion A is incorrect. In other words, he has already switched camps before he has the conscious recognition that opinion A was wrong. At no point in this changing of opinions does Alan ever hold an opinion that he believes to be wrong; by the time he realizes that opinion A is incorrect, he is already a believer in opinion B. This is important because it means that no one ever realizes that they are wrong, they can only ever realize that they were wrong.
Of course, once I realize that I will always believe that all of my opinions are correct, I must also realize that some of my opinions are undoubtedly incorrect. But if I hold some incorrect opinions but believe that all my opinions are correct, then how am I to know which opinions are correct and which are incorrect? I can’t. So not only do I not know everything, but even knowing that I don’t know everything, I have no way of knowing what I don’t know. If I never realize that I’m wrong, then how am I to know where I am wrong? This basic human finitude is not evil, but it makes humanity dangerous. We all, undoubtedly, hold some incorrect beliefs, but there is no way of knowing which beliefs are incorrect; and this sets us up for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time with unfortunate consequences.
Now, although we are prone to doing the wrong thing at the wrong time because of incorrect assumptions and opinions, the flip side can be just as bad. We will never know all we need to know to be confident in the decisions we make, but if we wait too long and fail to act when action is needed, then this can produce consequences that are just as bad.  Imagine that you’re driving down the interstate and you see a bad accident as it occurs. There’s a car that hits the median, flips several times and finally comes to rest upside-down. You stop as quickly as you can, get out and run up to the driver’s side window and see the driver, unconscious and hanging by his seat belt. You also see that there is smoke coming out of the engine and realize that something is on fire. There is gas leaking onto the asphalt and you don’t have access to a cell phone. Do you act, or do you wait for more qualified responders to come? If you act, there is a good chance that you will do the wrong thing; for instance, if the driver’s neck is broken, then moving the neck at all can cause paralysis or death. There is also a chance that if you do nothing and wait for the police that the gas could catch fire and burn the driver alive. What do you do?
This is an extreme example but it illustrates the conundrum that we face every day. Do we act or do we hesitate? It is not ever possible to have all the data necessary for any decision we make, and no way to be confident that we’re making the right decision, yet we are still required to make the choice: act or no? Because of our finitude we are doomed to make wrong decisions; and even when we make the right choices, we are bound to make them in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, or to the wrong extent. And every time we make a wrong decision, we are making mistakes and causing problems, and these problems cause pain for those around us. Therefore, we are doomed to cause pain and suffering for ourselves and those around us through our ignorance and arrogance. You see, the problem is not simply that we make some mistakes, it's that no one can stop making mistakes. There is no escape.
This basic human finitude is not the rot, but it makes the rot all the more dangerous. It concentrates evil and makes its effects more problematic just like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight. Now, I realize that this is all very depressing, but stay with me, it gets better. Next week, I’ll talk more about the nature of evil, the nature of the kingdoms of heaven and of hell, and how our own addiction to progress plays into our inescapable doom. So, it gets better, not next week, but soon.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Rot: Part I

The Rot: Part I
This is the first in a series of posts inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.
I’ve noticed a theme in American media. We seem to have a belief that our days as a society are numbered; and that our civilization’s demise is coming soon. This theme seems present in The Dark Knight Rises. The vision of Gotham, the US’s leading city, as a dying metropolis, slowly rotting away from the inside out; and the anger of the poor against the decadence of the rich seems to fall in line with that theme. To me, it seems that the movie is meant to be a mirror held up to American society.
 In the book 1984, George Orwell writes this:
“Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low . . . The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim . . . is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”
“For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves, or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins over again.”[1]
This cycle is both endless and inevitable. As a historian, I would have to agree, for the most part, with Orwell’s idea. One can see his pattern acted out over and over again throughout the history of humanity. I would, however, modify the structure a little bit.
First, I would argue that none of the three groups really want equality, liberty, or justice at all. It seems to me that all people are motivated by a basic addiction to progress and prosperity. We all want more than we currently have. It’s easy to miss this fact when comparing the poor to the wealthy. It’s easy to see that the wealthy are greedy when they have so much more than they actually need, but still scrape, kick and scream for more. After working with and befriending members of all three classes, however, I have come to see that the very same spirit is at work in the poor as well as the rich; it’s just harder to identify when wanting more is the same thing as simply wanting enough. People, however, are people; and the way a man uses ten dollars is going to be very similar to the way he uses ten-thousand. If a woman makes excuses for why she should be able to cheat the government, she will also make excuses as to why she should be able to cheat the popular masses. People are people; we all want more; and this is part of what drives the cycle of revolutions. No one wants equality, everyone wants more.
 Second, I argue that although no one really wants equality, all three groups pretend to want it. This pretense is intended both for others and ourselves. We lie to ourselves so that we can clothe our selfish objectives in righteous indignation and justify atrocities both large and small in pursuit of the ever elusive “more.” So, the low take up the cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity and oust the high. Those who oppress with money are then replaced; but who are they replaced with? Simply by another group, motivated by the same spirit, to the same ends, but possibly by a different means. This is what we see in the Gotham ruled by Bane. The poor got rid of the rich and are no longer exploited by the wealthy, but now the weak and vulnerable are tortured and bullied by the physically strong and well armed. They simply switched one type of oppression for another.
So the poor criticize the wealthy; the weak criticize the strong; and the untalented criticize the gifted. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to talk about “them” and what a horrible job “they” are doing. Sometimes “they” are the religious, or the atheists, or the liberal media elite, or the conservative bigots, or the homosexual agenda, or the capitalists bourgeois pigs, or the welfare parasites. There is no shortage of “them” in the world. The truth is, however, no matter what group replaces “them,” there will always be a new “them.” That is because “they” don’t really exist, whoever we have labeled them as, there is only us.
Just like in Batman, a change in the ruling class will not heal society’s problems, because no matter who “they” are, “they” are still part of us; and the problem is not with “them,” it is with us. We are the problem, all of us; and the problem will always be misdiagnosed until it is no longer “their” problem, but ours. We are broken, and this brokenness, this rot at the heart of humanity will not let us go.

[1] George Orwell, 1984. (New York: Signet, 1977) 166.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Baby Reflection 1

Once you’re a Dad, everyone around you asks you what it’s like to be one. They want to know how different I feel now that I’m a Dad. Before Kaia was born, I wondered, too, what it would be like; and I pictured myself being constantly overwhelmed by the immensity of her life. Now that she’s here, and we’re feeding, and rocking, and cheering over her poop, I find that there is a definite difference, but that the content of that difference is extremely hard to explain.
The best way I have of explaining how I feel about having a daughter is that everything has completely changed, but nothing has really changed. At once, everything about my daily routine, the pattern of my thoughts, and the environment I live in has completely changed; but the underlying rules of the game, and the strategy for navigating it has remained constant. I am the same person, although my circumstance has changed; and although my roles in life have shifted drastically, the way I look at life is, currently, the same as it was before.
I think that this is a product of my approach to life. I have a tendency to focus exclusively on one step of one problem at a time and an ability to turn my thoughts on any particular subject off, almost at will. When I’m confronted by really big ideas and events that I can’t process in one chunk, I tend to tuck my chin, look at my feet and concentrate solely on the next step, refusing to consciously contemplate the immensity of the mountain I’m climbing. The only thing currently allowed in the forefront of my mind is the next diaper changing and how I can help my wife to get some sleep; I let my sub-conscious deal with the immensity of what this birth means for my family.
My life has changed, but life has not changed. I have not changed although the life I find myself in has changed. My whole world has been turned inside-out but it’s really still just one foot in front of the other; one problem at a time. So, everything has changed, but nothing has really changed.
A prayer for my little girl
 My God, I ask that you would bless my daughter. I ask that you would give her beauty; that you would clothe her beauty in strength, her strength in courage, her courage in wisdom, and her wisdom in love. May Your love saturate her; may it be all-encompassing and driving. I ask that she would know Your love and be Your love.
I ask that you would shape her in the image of Your Son, that Your Spirit would lie thick on her, guiding and forming her. I ask that you would fill her with a love for Your, for Your Kingdom, and for Your justice. I ask that she would abhor injustice, be discerning to see it, wise to know how to stop it, and courageous to do what is needed. I ask that she would be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of Your Kingdom.
I ask that you would help us to be good parents. Give us patience and understanding to raise her well. Help us to always understand that she is Your child more than she is ours; that we are foster parents helping to raise Your daughter on Your behalf. Help us not to screw her up too much, only just enough.
In the Holy name of Your Son Jesus Christ I pray this,